Why Greenland in Winter?

Greenland, a land of icebergs and Inuit’s. Conventional wisdom says Greenland is only visited by intrepid explorers’ like Amundson and Rasmussen, plus a few hardy trekkers who come in the summer, but ordinary people like us just don’t go to Greenland in winter. Well they do now!

After the demise of my ill-fated St. Kilda trip, we spent some time wondering where to visit next. Most of our photography is done locally, but every now and again we fancy an adventure, so we on the lookout for new places to go to. We looked at Iceland, but we’re much happier shooting un-recognisable scenes, so Iceland was off the list. We really enjoyed our trips to Lofoten and may yet return one day, but Lofoten has become the new Iceland, so we decided to look a bit harder. We also looked at the Faroes and Spitsbergen, but Spitsbergen is more of a wildlife destination. Then we spotted some images by Russian photographer Daniel Kordan who’d been to Scoresby Sund in east Greenland and we loved them and this started our minds running.

Greenland’s a place so far off most people’s radar that they understandably have no idea what it’s like, but we’ve been fans of Ragnar Axelsson’s photography for several years and had read a couple of his books, so we had some idea of what to expect.

A small boat trip like Kordan’s was out of the question for Janet who doesn’t like boats, but we found a land based autumn trip to west Greenland with Wild Photography Holidays. Unfortunately, this trip was booked up, but the company had just announced a winter trip which looked right up our street. We thought about it overnight, then gave them a call the next morning and got the last two places!

How to Get There?

Getting there proved surprisingly easy. Train direct to Manchester, followed by a flight to Reykjavik. An overnight stay in Reykjavik, then a three-hour flight west over the ice-cap direct to Ilulissat town where we were staying. A fifteen-minute taxi ride and we were in our hotel, easy!

Reykjavik

What’s it Like?

Nothing can prepare you for beauty on this scale! Flying over the ice-cap and looking down on this immense white landscape defies description. As lovers of wild, remote places, we were definitely going to enjoy this! Greenland, first named by “Eric the Red” to boost his colonisation dreams, is the ultimate marketing scam, or in today’s parlance “Fake news”. Whilst the rim of this huge island is ice free in the summer, the island is totally snow covered in the winter. Greenland’s also a place facing great social and economic change; the old hunter/fisher subsistence way of life is rapidly giving way to a modern society where people live in towns, so visiting now was going to give us a glimpse of the old life before it finally disappeared altogether.

How Cold is it?

Getting off the plane at minus 30C takes your breath away! But in reality, once we got layered up and protected from the cold, it really wasn’t bad at all. Being a very dry cold helps a lot and provided you keep your fingers  and other extremities covered at all times, operating a camera didn’t prove to be a problem at all.

Ilulissat Airport

Climate

South Greenland is renowned for having a wet climate, but the winter weather in the east tends to be settled with little wind, or precipitation, so it makes the cold temperatures much more tolerable. Kneel, or sit in the snow and you don’t get wet and it doesn’t feel any colder than the air.

Ilulissat harbour

What is there to see?

Our hotel in Ilulissat proved to be bright, modern, well-appointed and served good food, so proved to be a really good base and it was also only a 30-minute trek over rough snow covered terrain to reach the Kangia Icefjord. Kangia is rightly a UNESCO World heritage site and truly a sight to behold. A 60km glacier makes its way slowly to the sea and calves icebergs the size of Manhattan into the mouth of the Icefjord and out into Disko Bay. Our vantage point on this first evening overlooking the icefjord gave us our first view of these bergs, but the scale is so immense, words and pictures fail to do them justice.  As sunset approached, we were treated to a subtle pink and blue sunset that only cold climes like this can give you, but at minus 34C, you don’t want to stay too long!

The Kangia Icefjord

Ilulissat itself proved to be modern and sprawling town of 3500 inhabitants, but with echoes of the old life all around, with sled dogs everywhere. What really struck me as incongruous though, was how many cars there were in a town that has no roads leading to anywhere outside the municipality.

Ilulissat town

The Icefjord

Temperatures in west Greenland normally average around Minus 15C in February, but our visit coincided with an unusual cold snap and we saw temperatures as low as minus 34C. This had the knock-on effect that the sea in Disko Bay froze over altogether, making the boat trips we had planned, out of the question. Then on day three the temperature rose to the low single figures (Negative) and within 24 hours the sea was opening up again allowing us to take a boat trip to the mouth of the icefjord. It’s hard to describe the immensity of these bergs, with some of them towering hundreds of feet high, but an unforgettable experience to see them soaring high above us from close up.

Kangia Icefjord

The Oqaatsut settlement

All too soon the iceberg trip was over, but our next adventure was about to begin with a move to our second location in the tiny settlement of Oqaatsut. The frozen sea ice meant that sailing 2-1/2 hours to the Oqaatsut settlement was impossible, so we made the 30km trip by helicopter in approximately 6 minutes.

Arriving in Oqaatsut

Oqaatsut, formally known as Rodebay is a tiny settlement of some forty or so people, largely living the traditional hunter/fisher way of life, so it gave us a great opportunity to see the last remains of what was the way most Greenlanders used to live. Though the recently reopened fish processing factory has provided employment for a few of the village inhabitants and the tourism provides more much needed income with a steady stream of trekkers walking from Ilulissat in the summer.

Oqaatsut settlment

Oqaatsut proved a fascinating place and even had a supermarket which sold everything from beer at reasonable prices to sticky tape to seal my lens in focus to capture the northern lights if they were to appear. But what did surprise me in a village with more sled dogs than people, was the supermarket sold cat food!

The Nordlys hotel Oqaatsut

The Oqaatsut settlement required a totally different, documentary approach to photography, then on night two we were treated to the ultimate prize of a glorious display of the northern lights filling the sky for over an hour.

Dancing aurora lights over the blue house in Oqaatsut

Was it worth it?

You bet ya it was! Photographing in minus 30C now holds no fear and to witness such incredible beauty is worth a little bit of discomfort. Would we go again, too right we would!

One final view of the ice from the hotel Icefjord balcony in Ilulissat.

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